In fall 1961, TV animation pioneer Jay Ward was awaiting NBC’s prime-time launch of “The Bullwinkle Show” — his clever, satirical series that appealed to children and adult sensibilities.
The series revolving around the naive but resourceful squirrel Rocky and the sweet but clueless moose Bullwinkle had premiered two years earlier on ABC as “Rocky and His Friends.” But the comedy had languished in a late-afternoon time slot after “American Bandstand.”
Ward had not been happy with how ABC promoted his show — rather, how ABC had not promoted his show — and he wasn’t about to let history repeat. So he and publicist Howard Brandy came up with a stunt: the Bullwinkle Block Party, held outside Ward’s offices on Sunset Boulevard.
Ward got permission to close down all but one lane of Sunset. (One sign posted for motorists read: “Don’t complain or we’ll block this lane too.”) He spread the word by inviting the press, said animation historian Darrell Van Citters, author of the new book “The Art of Jay Ward Productions.” Los Angeles County Sheriff Peter Pitchess emceed the event, and Ward had sex symbol Jayne Mansfield drop by as a special guest.
According to TV Guide, some “5,000 milling, screaming, caterwauling” partygoers turned out.
Dressed as Napoleon, Ward capped the festivities with the unveiling of a 16-foot revolving fiberglass statue of Bullwinkle in a bathing suit, holding Rocky up high in his left hand — a parody of the old Las Vegas Stardust hotel billboard across from Ward’s offices by the Chateau Marmont.
FOR THE RECORD:
Bullwinkle: The Classic Hollywood article in the Oct. 26 Calendar section about TV animation pioneer Jay Ward said a 16-foot Bullwinkle statue that used to stand on Sunset Boulevard was a parody of a billboard for the Stardust hotel in Las Vegas. The billboard was for the Sahara hotel. —
“Their icon was a showgirl in a bathing suit who rotated 360 degrees on the billboard,” said daughter Tiffany Ward, head of Jay Ward Productions since his death in 1989. “She had her hand up, and in her hand was a mirrored ball.”
Moose and squirrel were removed from Sunset Boulevard last year and restored by artist Ric Scozzari for DreamWorks Animation. The sculpture is now the centerpiece of “The Jay Ward Legacy Exhibit,” running at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills through the end of the year.
It was all about the funny for Ward, whose comedic sensibilities changed television animation. Ward realized that “it had to be a certain kind of funny,” Van Citters said. “They called it ‘Jay-rated.’ It had to be acceptable for kids but still funny for adults.”
The show’s dialogue is as sharp and as funny now as it was more than five decades ago:
Rocky: “Bullwinkle, it says here that for you to inherit the fortune, you have to spend the weekend in the ancestral home Abominable Manor.”
Bullwinkle: “That’s no problem. I’ve been living in an abominable manner all my life.”
Ward surrounded himself with the best talent. Bill Scott, the voice of Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right and Mr. Peabody, was hired to write the pilot. “Then he did more and more,” Van Citters said. “He became his business partner, producer and head writer.”
Ward hired top directors and animators, many of whom had worked at United Productions of America (better known as UPA, the studio behind “Mr. Magoo”), and writers including a young Allan Burns (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and Chris Hayward (“Get Smart”). Besides Scott and June Foray (the voice of Rocky), the series featured such veterans as Edward Everett Horton, Hans Conried, William Conrad, Paul Frees (Boris Badenov) and Daws Butler (perhaps best known as the voice of Yogi Bear).
The Paley exhibition features about 60 pieces of rare artwork, sculpture and memorabilia from Jay Ward Productions. That covers not only Rocky and Bullwinkle but also Boris and Natasha, the bumbling spies whose dastardly deeds were thwarted by moose and squirrel, as well as “Peabody’s Improbable History,” “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties,” “Fractured Fairy Tales” and “Aesop & Son.”
Among the highlights are original model sheets (character studies) for Rocky and Bullwinkle, model sheets and drawings for DreamWorks’ 2014 film “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” character designs from “Aesop & Son” and “Fractured Fairy Tales” and even a gooney bird statue, also restored by Scozzari, which sat atop the old Dudley Do-Right Emporium on Sunset Boulevard.
Follow me on Twitter @mymackie